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Microsoft's Lumia 950, its last flagship Windows phone.

Source: Microsoft

Windows Mobile: A Tale of Many Missteps

Windows Mobile, as we know it, is dead. The writing had been on the wall for many months now, but now we can properly bid the mobile platform goodbye, with Microsoft's Joe Belfiore all but confirming Windows Mobile's diminished role in the scheme of things moving forward.s

From PDAs to phones

Windows Mobile began life as the PocketPC in 2000 and was designed primarily to compete with Palm. Three years later, it was rechristened Windows Mobile, signifying its entrance into the nascent smartphone space. In those early years, owning a smartphone wasn't really that big of a deal. Applications and games (remember those days where newspapers would dedicate a specific section where you could dial a number to download games or ringtones for a fee?) were usually developed in Java 2 Platform Micro Edition, which ran just fine on most feature phones. Not that anyone cared for them–people back then would rather plug into their iPods or clock some hours on their PlayStation Portables or Nintendo DSes to keep them occupied.

But for those who valued productivity on the move, Windows Mobile was a strong contender. The Dopod 838 (now owned by HTC), an early 2006 phone which ran Windows Mobile, featured Wi-Fi capabilities in a time where the only viable alternative was the unorthodox-looking Nokia 9500 Communicator. By 2007, Microsoft had a sizeable share of the smartphone market, especially in the US where Nokia's reach was relatively limited. Mainstream vendors like Samsung and Sony Ericsson started adopting Windows Mobile, and it was a credible alternative to Symbian and BlackBerry. And perhaps that gave Microsoft a sense of complacency such that it failed to, or rather, did not think it had to, react to the iPhone.

Granted, the first iPhone was a poor phone, feature-wise. It had no App Store, no 3G or MMS support and possessed a 2-megapixel fixed-focus camera with no video recording in a time where Sony Ericsson and Nokia had rather decent 5-megapixel shooters. But its novel user interface and capacitive multi-touch screen set the wheels in motion.

Windows Phone: A clean slate

When Microsoft finally realised where the market was heading towards, it decided to take a gamble and start afresh by building a new operating system from the ground up, at least in terms of design. In doing so, it sacrificed backward compatibility with prior versions of Windows Mobile. On hindsight, Microsoft probably under-estimated the power of the app ecosystem. After all, at the point where Microsoft decided to start afresh, the App Store had barely come into existence.

But the final product, Windows Phone 7, came unfashionably late, at the end of 2010, and was an unfinished product. By then, the 'app gap' was becoming sizeable, with not only Apple's App Store to contend with, but also the up-and-coming Android Market (now known as the Google Play Store). WP7 regressed from Windows Mobile 6.5 in terms of features. It had no copy and paste functionality and did not support all but the most rudimentary forms of multitasking. Perhaps this was forgivable in 2007 (the first few iterations of the iPhone, too, did not have such features), but not in 2010 where such features were already integrated in every other smartphone OS. And this shortcoming also made it difficult for Windows Mobile 6.5 users, who had been enjoying such features for years, to make the switch.

Also, at a time where Google was essentially giving away Android for free (and still is, if you opt out of Google Play services), Microsoft continued to charge licence fees of about US$15 per phone. As a result, not many vendors were keen on adopting WP7, and none were very affordable.

The Nokia deal

With tepid sales, Microsoft needed something to boost the profile of its fledgling operating system. To Microsoft, a deal with Nokia was it. In 2010, Nokia still had a dominant market share. By forging this partnership, Microsoft signaled to the world that it had a great operating system on its hands, and by having it backed by the biggest handset maker in the world, it was primed for success. To sweeten the deal, Microsoft offered a sum of money to Nokia, which would offset the licence fees that Nokia had to pay per device.

As we look back, the move eventually backfired for both Microsoft and Nokia.

For Microsoft, its existing partners (already not that many to begin with) felt slighted. They would be seen as 'lesser partners' as compared to Nokia, which would no doubt receive preferential treatment from this arrangement.

For Nokia, this meant a loss of goodwill. Many people stuck with Nokia either because they were used to how Symbian worked, or they were eagerly anticipating MeeGo. MeeGo was eventually featured in the Nokia N9, which was very favourably reviewed. Unfortunately, no one could in good faith recommend others to buy a phone that was essentially dead-on-arrival (given that Nokia announced it was going all in on Windows Phone months earlier). The force that kept people loyal to Nokia was no longer there. OEMs weren't allowed to modify the look and feel of the operating system, unlike Android, where the practice continues to this day. For a company like Nokia which found great success back in the day differentiating through its symbiosis of hardware and software, it was a great restriction imposed on them. Any product differentiation from there onward could only be from a hardware aspect.

The announcement was made way too early as well. The first Nokia Windows Phone, the Lumia 800, took nine whole months to come to market. In the interim, Symbian's market share had tanked, from 32% in Q4'2010 to just shy of 12% in Q4'2011. Windows Phone didn't fare any better either, probably because most users (who hadn't switched to Android or iOS already) was waiting for Nokia's arrival.

A clean slate… again

In 2012, Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8, which was to succeed version 7.5. WP8 brought along with it a new kernel, this time based on Windows NT rather than Windows CE which powered WP7 and earlier. And for whatever reason, Microsoft felt it was perfectly fine to break backward compatibility, again. This wouldn't be that bad had Microsoft provided existing WP7 devices an upgrade path. Instead, they were given a consolation prize: Windows Phone 7.8, which brought with it only some of the UI improvements found in WP8.

For Microsoft, this was a necessary evil. The underpinnings of WP7 dated back to the 1990s, and they had to draw the line somewhere. By sharing the same Windows NT kernel as with its PC counterparts, Microsoft also hoped to close the app gap, as developing an app for both WP8 and Windows 8 would ostensibly be easier with a common kernel. Though, that begets the question: why did they not do this with WP7? It was already late to the market–they may as well be a little later and get it right the first time.

x86 on phones – a missed opportunity

Around this time, Intel was also experimenting with implementing its processors running on the x86 micro-architecture in smartphones. For the uninformed, virtually all of our desktop and laptop processors run on the x86 micro-architecture today, whereas tablets and phones run on the less-powerful (at least in the past) but more power-efficient ARM micro-architecture.

Curiously, such x86 processors did not end up in WP phones, where it would have been a perfect fit. Features like Continuum would have worked so much better had users been able to run their typical PC apps. A full-fledged version of Microsoft Office or Adobe CC–that would've been perfect. Instead of issuing laptops, businesses could have issued their employees with smartphones instead, and link them up with a docking station.

Instead, Intel tried to push X86 processors on a couple of Android phones (such as the ASUS ZenFone 2), without much success, and eventually withdrew completely from the mobile market.

Windows 10 Mobile–a last-ditched attempt

WP8 wasn't all bad. If anything, it sold relatively well in Europe, on the back of its budget oriented devices like the Lumia 635. Then, of course, Microsoft had to screw things up once again (on hindsight), with Windows 10 Mobile. This time, Microsoft advocated the concept of a universal Windows platform, where you could write an app once and have it run on Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile and even the Xbox. It also unveiled certain tools that would allow iOS apps (the Android version was initially planned, but later abandoned) to be ported to Windows Mobile. However, it came with the same upgrade pains–initially, Microsoft said that all WP8 devices could be upgraded to Windows 10 Mobile. Microsoft later backtracked on that promise, with only a select few devices getting the update in the end. For the third time in five years, Microsoft broke backwards compatibility. Who would trust them now?

In late 2015, as it was becoming clearer that Microsoft's mobile efforts weren't working, it wrote off US$7.6 billion from its Nokia acquisition and laid off thousands of employees in the phone division. Microsoft released its last first-party phone in early 2016, and since then, Windows Mobile had been on life support.

What's next?

What's next for Microsoft on the mobile front? Apps and services, of course. While it no longer has an operating system of its own, it still has a core suite of productivity applications and services, such as Office for Mobile and OneDrive. Recently, it introduced its Edge browser for both iOS and Android, and is also introducing Continuum-like features for Android devices via its Microsoft Launcher.

Towards its later years, with Windows Mobile pretty much being a first-party platform after Microsoft's acquisition of Nokia, there weren't any licensing fees to be earned. Windows Mobile essentially acted as a conduit to get people to use Microsoft's products and services. And Microsoft realises it doesn't really need a platform to do so. If it so wanted, it could instead launch a phone with its own customisations to Android, much as Samsung has done. Or, if they become really successful at the app game such that people become reliant on them, they could have a better shot next time with their own platform.

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